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Olympic Thoughts

Ancient Olympia

Maybe Danny Boyle’s $42 million Olympic opening spectacle wasn’t a song of homage to working people, but it played one on TV.

It included a tribute to Great Britain’s National Health Service. The workers who built the arena served as honor guards for the arrival of the Olympic torch. There was a gritty look at the Industrial Revolution. And there were comic bits poking fun at the grandiosity of the event, including filmed sketch plus stunt-double-skydive that featured the Queen.

One conservative MP, Aidan Burley, tweeted that the ceremony was “the most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen.” Of course, Burley is the same guy who got in trouble for attending a Nazi-themed party last year. I guess he wanted more Nazi salutes included in the Olympic opening.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote:

The director of the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Games created a production for the 99 percent, it seems.

The Daily Mail headline read:

Americans baffled by ‘left-wing tribute’ to free healthcare during Opening Ceremonies

I wasn’t baffled. I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the show celebrated or referenced England’s pop culture legacy, from Shakespeare to Mary Poppins to Paul McCartney. Popular culture can be confining and conformist, especially when the corporate suits take over and turn original beauty, insight or protest into pablum. Still, there has always been a deep egalitarian grain in much of popular culture (Shakespeare, in his day, was a pop culture phenom, not the elite specialty of stuffy Dons).  Boyle polished that grain.

I can’t watch ten thousand proud and happy athletes stream into the arena from more than 200 countries without thinking that we should fire 10,000 politicians from more than 200 countries and replace them with these focused, fit and obviously tolerant young athletes. I say “obviously tolerant” because the Olympic Village is apparently not just barracks and curfews. Instead, it seems to be something of a Dionysian orgy. All these young folks from all these countries are quite willing to overlook cultural, racial and religious differences when there’s a chance to make love not war.

The Olympics originated around 800 B.C., and it’s generally accepted that at least one of the practical functions was to halt growing conflicts among the young and hungry city-states of the time. So I suppose the Games’ competitors have always looked like peacemakers next to the bully tyrants. They didn’t always gather in the posh surroundings of today’s Games, though. As Neil Faulkner writes in his entertaining A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics:

The Olympic Village was a vast, tented encampment, with inadequate water supplies, heaps of stinking refuse, and huge, open, improvised latrines. The air was alive with millions of flies, mosquitoes and wasps. By the end, no one had washed properly for a week, and you could smell the Games a mile away.

And Mitt Romney thought there were “disconcerting” things about the London Olympics.

The Olympics were born in a time of great cultural creativity. It wouldn’t be too long before Homer took advantage of the new Greek alphabet with vowels built upon the Phoenician alphabet and wrote down stories that had been told, in one form or another, around the camps and ports for centuries. A re-birth of ancient democratic practices wasn’t far away.

Which brings me back to the greatness of London’s cultural celebration to open the Olympics. It was more like populist culture than popular culture. It was mythic, not in the sense of some founding “aren’t we great” origin story, but in the sense that “we made this stuff, some of it’s grand and some of it’s goofy but these are the stories we tell and the songs we sing.”

And, in the end, because there’s this authenticity to it, even the artificial works well. For instance, the piece where Daniel Craig as James Bond escorts Queen Elizabeth to the ceremony, could have been stagey, stodgy, and flat. Instead, it was hilarious. And, if there has ever been a better public relations move by Buckingham Palace I don’t know what it is. The Queen mugging it up in a scene with Daniel Craig? It looked like Craig was thinking the same thing.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith